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By Collin Kelley
Vanilla Heart Publishing / ISBN: 978-1-93540-729-4
As I've said here many times before, I believe that for a novel to be a truly great one, it must successfully combine three essential elements -- it must have an exciting and logical plot, populated by realistic and compelling characters, written in a competent and unique style. But of course the irony of this is that these three elements aren't even slightly equal when it comes to importance; that for a novel merely to be readable, all it really requires is a reasonable storyline and a lack of grammatical errors, and only then does one need to worry about adding intriguing and complex characters to the mix. (In fact, as those who have done their homework know, the emphasis on character development came rather late in the history of the novel, mostly the result of the academic community getting more and more involved with the format starting in the early 20th century, and is actually the issue that most informs the debate between so-called "mainstream" fiction versus "genre" literature; the latter is accused of concentrating too much on plot to the detriment of character, while the former is accused of the exact opposite.) And thus is the literary world filled with a plethora of novels by beginning authors that least aren't terrible, in that they've at least conquered the challenges of the three-act story and "proper English;" but neither are they truly compelling, because of the lack of emphasis on truly compelling characters, that complicated and oh-so-elusive detail that has been plaguing writers for centuries.
Take for example the new Conquering Venus, the small-press novel debut of multiple Pushcart nominee Collin Kelley, a past nominee as well of the prestigious Lambda gay literary award for his popular poetry. Because the fact is that the story fueling this book is a pretty great one indeed, a smart and original idea that made me excited to read it -- it's the story of two youngish Memphis hipsters who are hired to escort a group of high-schoolers on their senior trip to Paris, one of whom is a gay man only in his early twenties himself and already a widow (because of his previous partner committing suicide), and who slowly starts falling in love with one of the high-schoolers he's in charge of, through a series of intense and sexually charged situations there in that most romantic of all European cities. And in the meanwhile, this man also ends up befriending a sixty-something female shut-in ingenue who lives across the street from the hotel where the group is staying, a childhood Nazi survivor and fellow widow whose politically radical husband was killed during the student riots there of 1968, who just so happens to have the same exact tattoo as the American located at the same exact part of the body (an "everlasting love" symbol at the base of their thumbs, both of which were originally done in conjunction with their now-dead partners), the two of whom have also been having a series of magical-realism dreams about the other in the weeks leading up to the trip, and who become convinced that they are fated to help each other work through their respective loss and pain.
And that's the main thing I want to emphasize today, that when it comes to all that, Kelley does quite a nice job, turning in a tidy story that was obviously well thought out and thoroughly researched; not only does it have a tight internal logic but also presents the city in a highly realistic and evocative way, and with lots of real-feeling details about the calamitous days there in the late '60s that this youngish author obviously couldn't have directly experienced himself. And that's why Conquering Venus gets at least a decent score today, and a full write-up instead of a one-paragraph brushoff, because it deserves such a thing, and it deserves to find the audience who will enjoy this book just for these elements alone. So what a disappointment, then, to read through the novel and realize that it's the characters themselves who are wildly inconsistent, changing profoundly in their nature from scene to scene depending on what Kelley specifically needs to have happen in that scene for his elaborate storyline to hold together; it's what stops this merely okay novel from being a truly great one, a disappointment even more bitter than normal because of him otherwise coming so close to getting everything so right.
Take for example the character Diane, the middle-aged teacher who is the catalyst behind the entire trip, and who is the one to eventually invite her gay non-teaching friend Martin along to be her co-escort: because as she exists within Conquering Venus, she is sometimes seen as a with-it urban Jew who of course has young gay friends and who of course would be thought of as the perfect escort for a bunch of rowdy teens on a trip to the EU, while at other times she comes off as a judgmental, schoolmarmish shrew, reacting like a xenophobic grandmother to the very idea of one of the students getting a tongue-piercing during the trip. Like I said, this is one of the intermediate lessons of novel-writing, learned only after first mastering the basics but still as important as anything else; that for a novel to be truly great, an author must first create a series of airtight characters with an unbreakable consistency to their behavior and ethics, and only then create a compelling three-act story that logically fits around these consistent characters, with the plot itself needing to be changed when clashing with the natural action any particular person in it would take in any particular situation, not the other way around. And unfortunately, this is a problem found again and again throughout the entire manuscript, of characters reacting to situations in radically different ways based on what needs to happen at that particular moment in order for Kelley's plot to hold together -- just to cite one more example, the fact that our ingenue Irene is so agoraphobic that she literally passes out when walking out the front door of her building, yet has absolutely no problem lounging around for hours on her open-roofed balcony thirty feet directly above this front door, an element of the story absolutely necessary under Kelley's plotting in order for her and Martin to meet in the first place.
And then this isn't even taking into consideration the much bigger problem with these characters, which is that I didn't find a single one of them to ultimately be sympathetic; because when all is said and done, of the three main characters who make up this book, one is essentially a horrible little monster to virtually every person she meets, another is constantly trying to get a series of manual laborers fired for not catering to her every mentally-imbalanced whim, while the third apparently sees no problem with aggressively pursuing a gay sexual relationship with a confused closeted jailbait alcoholic teenager, an aspect that will be even more troubling to others depending on who they are. And again, this is not to say that a novel needs to be populated with selfless heroes in order to be a success, nor that characters aren't allowed to make mistakes or even sometimes come across as villainous; but in order for a traditional three-act story to work (and make no mistake, this is a traditional three-act story), we need to be able to at least root for the characters at the center of it all, at least not actively despise them and to be cheering for their failure. And unfortunately, this is exactly where I found myself by the end of Conquering Venus, actively hoping that Martin would just finally leave that poor wino closeted kid alone already, and wondering why he would be friends with such an irredeemable c-nt like Diane in the first place.
It's for all these reasons that today Conquering Venus gets only a limited recommendation from me; like I said, there's definitely an audience out there who will like this quite a bit, precisely as mentioned because a novel doesn't need to master characterization in order to be at least okay, only storyline and grammar which this one does, although those expecting more from their full-length fiction will unfortunately be disappointed. In any case, it is for sure a better-than-normal first novel, one that Kelley should be proud of for the things it gets right; now it's time for him to hunker down and work on the complicated advanced issues that come with the novel-writing process, before turning in his second.
Out of 10: 7.9